I used to work for a living. That, I can say. And it was after commuting for an hour into the centre of Manchester every morning on public transport, then hightailing it another thirty minutes out the other side, that I eventually got into the routine of stopping off at the university canteen just before journey’s end, full of eager students and hard-hatted building site workmen, for a hot cup of coffee and a couple of toasted teacakes.
Like its rival chain coffee shops they ran a loyalty card system; theirs required the customer to obtain six stamps for the free drink and in the light of what all the other high street stores offered it seemed an extremely generous deal. With most people that would have been that and such an offer wouldn’t have impacted upon their life to the extent where they were still mulling over it a decade later.
To that extent I am probably unique.
Let us all agree: I am not “most people”.
For me it all started to become a problem the day when I collected a fresh loyalty card, whilst I paid for that day’s second breakfast, and the pretty girl on the till in a flagrant disregard for the natural order of things gave it three defiant stamps instead of the one I anticipated and she handed it to me with a smile. Therefore, after paying for only one drink, my card was already half marked. Perhaps this girl had taken a shine to me or maybe, with her devil-may-care attitude, she was trying to bring the place down from the inside; who can say?
Good fortune, you may think, which should have been accepted for what it was and left at that; however, another morning I ended up getting served by an older lady on one of the tills and when I gave her my card, whilst she ran up my bill, she noticed the five stamps I’d accrued and told me that my drink was therefore free. She was of the belief that the sixth and final stamp was what she had to daub for their own personally records and when I tried to suggest to her that I really didn’t believe this to be the case she wouldn’t have it any other way.
Fortune upon fortune, you may think, but my real problems began when I quite quickly established that these incidents weren’t one-offs, and that I could rely upon the services of the charming three stamps, and the befuddled five stamps, to aid my cause.
I thus went on to find myself of a morning, hot drink on one hand, greasy bag of buttered toasted bread products in the other, dedicatedly hoping to secure the services of the right girl, at the right time, so I could achieve the perfect scenario of lining them up every four days and gaining a free cup of coffee after paying for just three like some sort of low rent society cat burglar enjoying his moment on the tiles.
Again, most people would have taken paying for only three in every four drinks seeing as with Caffé Nero it was nine in ten; that Costa Coffee only gave you back five pence in every whole pound spent; and Starbucks didn’t seem to bother1; however I soon found myself over-thinking the whole coffee situation and this was mainly down to the Irish problem.
She was the fly in my ointment, the lady on one of the tills with the demeanour of a prison guard whose eyes I could often feel boring into the back of my neck as I chit-chatted with one of the girls, and the killjoy from whom no amount of the milk of human kindness could seemingly be wrung.2 I naturally didn’t want her to catch wind of my ruse – she could possibly have got the nice staff sacked, or perhaps the loyalty card scheme cancelled, as this wasn’t a big chain so perhaps the little people could make a big difference – and so to prevent myself from being found out from claiming all my free coffees I had to keep pretending my card had run out and pick up a second or third new one before juggling them fearful that it might appear suspicious, to a casual observer, if I were to obtain another free drink too soon.
So over the weeks, and the months, and the years I was reduced to carefully claiming my free drinks at a rate I thought realistic, and could get away with without arousing any kind of suspicion, trying to achieve a rate that was greater than one on four, whilst less than the one in seven that management had intended all along, although with all the multiple cards I was forced to carry, some I’d never get to finish or claim, we were quite possibly in the end all even.
And all of that, ultimately, was an imaginary battle fought over the fate of a seventy-five pence cup of coffee. With the extent to which I made a song and dance about that then just imagine what the rest of my life is like.
1 – Although on one visit, where I fell into their evil clutches at a train station because there was little alternative, the barista told me that they did have a card but it was only one that I could transfer all my money onto so it’d only be good for spending in Starbucks. Now what’s the point in that?
2 – She once went for me directly, on the grounds of hygiene, when she caught me delicately wedging my loyalty card between my lips whilst juggling to find the right change in the queue.